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First-Year Writing Seminar: Portraiture and Power

Semester and Year FA 2014
Course Number FIRST-UG400
Section 001
Instructor Nina Hien
Days Tue,Thu
Time 4:55 PM - 6:10 PM
Units 4.0
Level U
Foundation Requirement


Open to Gallatin first-year students only.


From Velazquez’s enigmatic Spanish Baroque painting “Las Meninas,” which depicts the artist himself in the presence of the royal family, to the current moment when the digital “selfie” functions as a gauge of cultural narcissism, this writing-intensive class will examine “the portrait” and its prominent and peculiar place as a visual and textual object in pre-modern and modern global contexts through written description, formal analysis and contextualization. The practice of portraiture indicates the ways that a society classifies human beings, establishes hierarchies and reveals its value systems. Beyond portraiture as an art form, we will explore it as a vernacular and/or ritual practice as well as a treatment of identity and personhood in diverse time periods and geographical locations. We will devote attention to Vietnamese altar portraits used for ancestor worship as well as the iconic images and representational politics of pictures of Hitler, Che Guevara and Chairman Mao. We will consider the influences that different and transforming media technologies have on representing people and the self. Through an analysis of Italo Calvino’s essay about Mussolini’s official portrait, we will consider the relationship between text and image and apply some of his innovative literary techniques to class writing assignments. In two five-page essays and three drafts of a 10-12 page final essay, students will develop their academic writing and rhetorical skills through an engagement with visual and textual material. Beyond Calvino, readings may include essays by George Simmel, Mette Siggstedt, Geoffrey Batchen, Oscar Wilde, James Elkins, Joanne Woodall, Claudia Schmolders, Roland Barthes and Maurizio Peleggi.

Course Type

First-Year Program: Writing Seminars (FIRST-UG)

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New York University
Gallatin School of Individualized Study
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